Kwani? An explosion of Kenyan Works


I am in Nairobi. I had not heard a thing about the Kwani 111 launch. Don’t get me wrong I read the papers, watch my average share of television and listen to the radio on my way to work. On occasion I attend the recitals and readings that Kwani holds at Kengeles on a Tuesday every month. For some reason the launch at Simba Saloon passed me. On Wednesday morning my brother, Wanduma, who also posts on this blog and happens to be a couple of thousand kilometres away in Washington or New York (he moves quite a bit) sends me an invite for the launch and cocktail. I am once again impressed with the way he maintains contact with friends here at home. Having a few of my own friends who always complain that we Kenyans don't read and write, I called a few to find out what their plans were for a cold Thursday evening. Most had other plans or were planning on staying indoors- keep warm spend some quality time with the family- you know the kind of excuses!

By the end of the day I have resigned myself to the fact that only my dear wife will accompany me to the launch. This is of course if I can somehow manage to convince, cajole or bribe her to change her routine that she follows religiously:1. Arrive home at about 6pm shower. 2. Have tea and watch news. 3. Supper and small talk with hubby and girls. 4. Stretch out on the sofa and relax 5. In bed by 10pm. 6. Asleep by 11pm. My evenings are more or less the same except for those days that I indulge myself in a few 'double famous'.

So I get home Wednesday and engage in a mixture of pleading asking and demanding for my wife’s company to the launch. I have been married 15 years so I do not hesitate to say that I have mastered the technique of getting my way. Although sometimes I wonder whether knows before hand and just plays with me, enjoying her moment of strength. Anyway, she finally agrees to accompany me but not before I have promised to by her a perfume called SENSI or some name like that. I am relieved for I feel I got off easy on this one.


I spend most of the day in government offices trying to cut through the usual red tape. From the clerks to the big boys, everyone is asking: “si ununue ka chai ama lunch”? It most frustrating trying to explain to them that as a matter of principle I do not pay people, who are already salaried, to do their jobs. The clerks think that I am arrogant and their bosses think I must know someone more senior than them. How else can my aloofness and attitude be explained? Eventually I get what I want and leave the offices in a huff.

On my way to where I have parked my car I run into my cousin Kibati. I ask him in passing to join me for the Kwani launch later in the evening. He stares at me awkwardly and laughs. Poetry and readings? “Who the hell listens to such”? Trying not to hurt my feelings he agrees to meet me there.

I arrive at the carnivore, wife in tow - I am sure that sounds crude but yes wife in tow and tons of excitement and expectation on my part. My cousin is already there and has secured a table positioned very wisely close enough to the stage and far enough from the speakers. He introduces the Pilsner in front of him as his date and offers us seats. In the back the cocktail is going on. I sneak a look into the tent and spot the large imposing frame of Binyavanga Wainaina in his trademark dreadlocks and a golden yellow African outfit. The only other person I have met is Judy Kibinge who I have always thought to have dreamy eyes and an enchanting laugh.

I rejoin my team and the wife proceeds to order dinner for herself. My cousin and I decline, as we are more interested in the wine list than the menu. There are about 25 people in the Simba Saloon and probably another 20 in the cocktail tent. At about 9 pm it starts to fill quite quickly, people are coming in from tent and others are paying the 300 shillings entrance and soon we have about a hundred people maybe two hundred.

The drums roll and the show begins. A single man in front of a set of Bongo drums introduces the first poet. It’s a great poem and the words “This poem is a dance” are captivating. A dancer joins him on stage and together they rhythm and dance. The person reciting the poem is offstage and his voice is strong and powerful. I am not sure but I think it was KJ- he of Red Korna and Redycullus (sp). The whole house enjoyed that tremendously.

This is part One if you have found it interesting please comment and I may post part Two. Encouragement needed.


I feel like crap and recall crap-days from the past

So check this out, I am at the third client this week, bored to crap, because I have been giving the same presentation over and over again. I talk about paradigm shifts, I suggest that we level-set our understanding, I urge them to go out and gain mind-share and finish by laying out for them a strategic vision with tactical and actionable steps.

The odd thing is that based on this, and few weeks of expert needling, they are going to pay an sickening amount of money for a solution that will in all likelihood do nothing to budge the paradigm. I mean there is a chance that it might help them, but really I cannot be sure. Honestly. What I am sure of is that if they buy, my firm makes the numbers, a whole lot of people remain employed, and I look good. Employed, meant employed-at-my-firm, not at the client, because what I haven’t mentioned yet is that the good folks in the room signing off on this project will be the ones let go to make room for the new system. It’s progress, but I don’t buy it. Over the last ten years, I have helped sell dozens of killer apps that just sat on shelves after people hit the streets. So what is the right thing to do?

My arms are tired from all the waving, pointing and chopping the air to punctuate my points, but I struggle on to my grand finale.

“That my friends is the Holy Grail!”, I say, hands raised high, cupping my point. My eyes hover slowly across the room, coming to rest at the spot just above my outstretched hands. Now picture a whole room of white corporate types, eyeballs fixated on my cup. Oh yeah, and there is token black dude in the back corner. I know how he feels. I know he knows how I feel. I know he knows I know how he feels, and as a result we have been unable to hold each others gaze throughout my presentation.

He just sits there judging me. He is wondering how I got the gig; in my funny accent pounding notions into concepts, thrusting gists into view, while making impressions on perceptions, in order to compose a proposal out of ideas, and model theories out of pure thought. Nah, he’s on to me.

I feel like such a fraud, standing here in my suit, holding my arms in the air, trying so hard to finish at a high point. Please let me digress for a quick second, and point out that my suit is nice. I have always dreaded myself in a suit - picturing my dad and all the other civil servants at the bus stop in Buru Buru waiting to be squeezed brusquely into a mathree on rainy mornings. You know the look; ill fitting, crumpled from so many packed mathree rides and with a faint whiff of last evenings swallow and nyaks. God, I swore to never wear a suit. I expected to go to Kenya Poly like my cousin and become an engineer. Full stop.

Now here I am peddling words for a living. No, not a journalist or even a decent novel writer, but a consultant working jargon till it is worn and jumping on the next business management bandwagon, as soon as it comes into view. Sure, my white-papers have been well received and published, but so what…it’s still all an empty game. All just false analogies, shell games, and trick questions; a sucker doping suckers.

Anyway, what killed my mood is that I made one of those dreaded cultural reference miscues, again. You know, I know to avoid talking sheng when I go home so as to avoid dating myself, or worse looking like a fool. But working in corporate America, I catch myself trying too hard sometimes.

Like this morning, my co-workers were complimenting my hard work on behalf of the company and the new revolutionary management technique we were pitching, and one of the said cheerily, “Looks like you drank the Kool-Aid!”

Instead of responding cheerily with, “Nice one Chet!”, I misunderstood and went ahead to explain that I never drank Kool-Aid, and grew up drinking Treetops. They burst out laughing. So much hilarity over a little cultural foible.

“Shit”, I thought, and silently questioned whether some of their delight may have been taken from some racist connotation implied in the name of my favorite childhood drink.

So, every day I have to be on the alert. Watch what I say. Avoid making mistakes like drinking coffee through the little stirrers. Why are do they stir their coffee with little straws? It all leaves me confused and paranoid. I know how I look. I am that little Kenyan guy with the watchful eyes.

I end up not trusting anyone, double-checking everything, and ending with a reputation for being anal and attentive. This is not always a good thing. Beware when they ask about your attention to detail, eh. Don’t go overboard! It’s kind of a trick question. Okay, I am a little paranoid, but I treat every question as if it were a trick question. I was ruined by doing all those multiple choice questions, and I never recovered from seeing my first ‘(d) None of the above’. Oh, I can’t tell you the horror! None of the above!! I mean, it used to make me crap my pants. I would going along so well, nailing every question like a fucking carpenter, and then ‘wham’, they would pull a fucking ‘none of the above’! I would be off my game for the rest of the test. I hated teachers who did that. I mean wasn’t it the height of laziness, or at least just damn wrong.

It wasn’t fair, I would cry. You have the answer and you won’t just share it with us! I drove myself mad. So, being a bit of a swot, I started writing in the answer. Yaani, I would add ‘(e) 14.374…and add an extra decimal point to prove my point, and then shade in my crooked little ellipse. It was my way of getting back! Unfortunately it worked and my standard 7 math teacher, Sa Peter, starting hating me. I preferred my previous math teachers, Sa James who taught standard six and Miss Alice who taught standard five.

He would walk back into class, his half-cowboy boots making a loud ‘toc, toc, toc’ on the floor.

‘Times up! Drop your pensos and hand forward your pepas!”.

He would then fish out my paper and look for any of my extra answers to mark up with a big red ‘X’. My paranoia now was easily matched by stubbornness then. So, I continued to enter my correct answers, and he got more pissed off.

During one test I was overjoyed to find a question that had no correct answer among the given multiple choices! This happened very rarely, and when it did the whole class got a free point for the question. I knew Govinda, the Sikh swot, and Aggrey, the perennial number three were scoring better and better in their math tests and I could not afford them getting a free point. In any case they had probably seen the same mistake as I did…but just in case, I was going to have Sa Peter fix it. Perhaps he could put a new set of multiple-choices on the blackboard.

Back in the conference room, a chair creaks as someone shifts in their chair to relieve cramping cheek. Damn, I held the chalice-in-the-air pose a little to long! I turn back to face the room, staring directly at my fellow interloper in the back and finish with,

“The net-net is that what you need to do is disambiguate your data in order to create a more intuitive knowledgebase. Thank you. Does anyone have any questions?...No? Thanks again.” There is a pattering of applause as I take my seat and the next presenter, my compadre from the back corner, nervously passes out a thick sheaf of handouts.

After reviewing my test silently twice, I walked to the front of the class. As soon as I got up I saw Govinda and Aggrey exchange glances. I knew they were lip reading but there was no way to block their view.

Sa James would not agree with me. He said the answer was there! I showed him my calculation, but he just shook his head and said it was wrong. How annoying! He smiled and said ‘Sit down, Muthee’.

‘No!’, I said, way too loudly and way too angrily to be talking to a teacher. I was done. I lost 5 points on the test for ‘disrespecting the teacher’, 5 points for ‘disrupting the class’, and gained 1 point for the bad question. I had been right. It was Pyrrhic victory I told myself, but what I didn’t know was that it wasn’t over.

I don’t fully understand how an adult could get all worked up like that and get into a pissing match with a kid, but it got to a point at the end of second term, before our CPE mocks that he presented us with a paper in which all fifty question had an ‘(d) none-of-the-above choice. All fifty! There was an audible gasp when the class turned over the questions to start the test. In fact, some kids started crying.

Of course, I was one of those crying kids, but I read each question and all their multiple choice answers, blurry through the tears, and shaded each one correct.



Tell me, someone, please tell me why I am here.
What is that purpose mine that I seek
These distractions are so loud; please whisper to me the secret
The directions so I find my way
My candle flickers in the storm making uneasy shadows that confuse me
Light me a path with your lantern so I may see where I go
I fear I might be lost.
Can you hear me?

Tell me again, old friend, tell me why I am here.
Am I here really just to cheer, to applaud those that stand out?
To see pictures of them in Time, Forbes and Newsweek.
Patience that’s what you say, relax your time will come
How, pray tell me, will I know the knock- will it be loud?
Please tell me that I will hear it.
Are you there?

While I refuse to be part of the furniture wanting to be recognised
Like millions everywhere I know not what to say; what to do
Is there that niche for me here or am I in it with those millions
I long to leave that mark for which I will be remembered?
That cant be too much to ask for
Is anyone there?

Tell me, my love, please tell me why I am here.
What do I tell our children when they ask what I don’t know
Do I tell them we are here because we are here or do I tell them?
The birds were made for song and the flowers pretty
The bees for honey and the fruits for food the clouds for rain.
That is the question I fear most.
Are you with me?

Tell me, dear God, please tell me why I am here
What must I do to be told the truth
It wasn’t by accident that you put me here- or was it?
A life lived well you want,
But surely there’s got to be something to show
I am not asking for the burning bush
But only you have the answers that I need.
How do I make the most of all these lemons
When you know I hate lemonade?
I know you hear me.



How does one moderate his dislike for extremists and all that they supposedly stand for? I hold my breath waiting for someone to explain to me in plain and simple English (or any other language for that matter) how the killing of innocent people can right whatever wrongs they feel have been committed against them. How is it even conceivable that one human being can have so much hate directed against a person he or she has never even met? I do not profess to have any answers but on my part, the blame lies squarely on the leadership. It is leadership that consistently fails us in the pursuit for social harmony and a peaceful coexistence. Yes!! It is my conviction that terrorists should be shot and the liberties of suspected fanatics should be restricted. To hell with their civil rights!

I stand to be corrected but I believe that the message in all humanities “Holy Books” and teachings, almost without exception, preach universal harmony and peace. It is the twisted interpretations of leaders that constantly pit us against each other. These leaders that we all allow to be our guides and believe are our links to the ‘thereafter’ are the real criminals. They continually teach hatred for one simple reason. They have knowledge that if you create a channel for sentiment and manage to focus it, your followers will be blind to your faults and weaknesses. There are few sentiments as strong as hatred. Just as the soldier does not make the evil regime, extremism is not the making of the terrorist.

The targets for revenge should not be women and children and the innocent. If that is done then the avenger is no better than the terrorist. Bombs and missiles need not be unleashed on villages and towns in Afghanistan and Iran but instead we need to see a concerted effort to deny the leaders of fanatical groupings the tools spread this hatred.
The radio and television stations that claim to be neutral but are openly pro hate and provide airtime to these leaders should be put off air permanently:- bomb them if need be. Places of worship need to remain just that. The pulpits and the Mosques have been desecrated by those who are supposed to protect them. Way too much space has been given hell raisers and hate mongers.

In light of recent events this may seem targeted at our Muslim brothers. But it is not. I am against all violence perpetrated against those with an unequal ability to defend themselves. Whether it be tribal conflict in Rwanda, regional fighting in Sudan, terrorists in Israel, Israeli troops in the West Bank or terrorists in the streets of London. These leaders have got to be stopped.

Hate me! But that is the way I feel.